Sound and Documentary in Cardiff and Miller's Pandemonium

The Project

“. . . the aesthetic was rooted in the body, rather than the object, and turned on the disposition to sense acutely.” 
                                                                                                                            David Howes

“. . . embodied experience through the senses . . . is how we think."
Caroline Jones
From 2005 to 2007, Canadian artists Janet Cardiff (b. 1957) and George Bures Miller (b. 1960) overwhelmed overwhelmed a cellblock at the Eastern State Penitentiary historic site with sound. They automated a live performance of real noises made by simple robots striking furniture detritus and pipes in the cells of this abandoned prison, which had once specialized in enforced silence and isolation. Ceramic toilets, iron bedsteads, and metal lightshades struck by screws and drumsticks rang out treble while wooden cupboards and a dozen steel barrels hit by felt-wrapped mallets resonated deep bass. [1] The looped composition comprised fifteen-and-a-half minutes of rhythmic music followed by thirty seconds inaction that framed environmental sounds. Beats emanated from cells up and down the corridor as if generated by ghostly inhabitants. Unfolding in a progressive narrative arc that accelerated to a thundering crescendo, the composition structured an interplay of communicative tapping and seemingly random organic noise, a call-and-response counterpoint of military-style demonstration and ecstatic dance beat. Pandemonium was also replete with pauses, discontinuities, and slippery sounds that resisted signification. It included the reverberation of this unstable acoustic environment, shaped as it was by atmospheric shifts and flows of visitors. [2] Pandemonium was a vigorous perceptual experience in continuous flux.
This essay takes Pandemonium as its pivot point, examining through this one complexly resonant artwork the intersection of sound art and documentary the better to understand both fields of practice. In the first of this paper’s three sections, I offer an account of Pandemonium’s operations and relation to its site, Eastern State Penitentiary, which had functioned as a prison from 1829 until 1971 and was by 2005 a museum about the institution’s extraordinary place in American penal history. Renowned for its Romantic architecture, radial layout, and above all its controversial system of enforced silence and isolation, Eastern State Penitentiary presented an apt context in which to interrogate sound and the effects of sensory assault and deprivation on the individual and social body. Responding to these conditions, Cardiff and Miller, a married couple and artistic collaborators, produced a musical composition that oscillated between highly allusive sounds—conjuring an illusion in the cellblock that occupants were communicating, congregating, dancing, and rioting—and indeterminate, atmospheric sounds that continually morphed and undermined this haunting narrative. [3] What little has been written about Pandemonium presents the work as a clever reenactment of inmates’ real struggles to communicate during the penitentiary’s silent years, an interpretation according to which the artwork gives voice to former occupants and reactivates the prison’s history. I propose instead that Pandemonium’s peculiar mode of noise-making suspends the percipient in a rousing middle space between narrative and noise. I ask what experiences of Eastern State Penitentiary Pandemonium made possible that other forms cannot and whether Pandemonium might function as a sonic documentary. 

In addressing these questions, my project traces a relationship between music and representation, sound and realism. In the second section, this pursuit leads readers on an unusual art historical trajectory as I consider representational strategies in nineteenth- and twentieth-century music. Here I connect Pandemonium with narrative programme music and avant-garde noise music that foregrounded timbre, texture, percussion, as well as mechanically-produced sound, immersive extremes of volume, and popular music’s intense appeals to the body from blues to rock, punk, and techno. Sound is revealed throughout to be inseparable from its affective and somatic functions, a force of emancipatory promise and of violent threat with profound potential to mobilize bodies. Ultimately, I position Pandemonium as exemplary of sound art, a field of practices codified in the later twentieth century that use sound as the physical and semantic material with which to investigate space and the social configurations of bodies in environments. 
In a third section, I consider sound art against the “documentary turn” in contemporary art of the early 2000s that saw artists looking for credible forms with which to represent real events and experiences in all their subjective multiplicity. Taking Jeff Wall’s notion of “near documentary” as a jumping off point, I locate a relationship for sound and documentary in the radical sense of bodily proximity conjured by a binaural field recording technique at the heart of Cardiff’s audio walks. With a close examination of Words Drawn in Water (2005), an audio walk produced roughly simultaneously with Pandemonium, I argue that its hyperreal, three-dimensional binaural audio functions analogously to trompe l’oeil painting as delineated by art historian Michael Leja[4] By conjuring biometric sounds of footsteps and breath, Words Drawn in Water triggers a sense of closeness in the percipient’s body with that of Cardiff’s narrator, priming the user to be susceptible to an intimate, sensory experience of the environment in question and to the many concrete ways in which meditating sensorially on that environment make its continuities and interconnections across history palpably material. It is these embodied qualities of sound that I argue operates as a form of documentary realism in Pandemonium. At Eastern State Penitentiary, Cardiff and Miller triggered a sense of radical proximity through sounds concretely of the cellblock. It was this visceral, thickening of the relationship between the body and its environment that made the percipient receptive to Cardiff and Miller’s onslaught of references to noise music’s spectrum of potential. The percipient’s body was thus invited to become a medium through which sensory relations at Eastern State Penitentiary were felt to be material and present, alive and unresolved. 
Much is at stake in this project. As a temporary and intangible work of art organized ten years ago by an independent curator at a site not primarily focused on art history, Pandemonium is vulnerable. My project sets out to preserve its records as far as possible. Attending to Pandemonium proposes an interpretation of Eastern State Penitentiary itself that is rather different than the official narratives on offer by the site and its historians. Pandemonium opens the possibility that Eastern Site Penitentiary’s controversial system of sensory deprivation is neither so remote nor quite so fixed and absolute as it can feel in that imposing building. Rather than proposing to reactivate the penitentiary’s history, Pandemonium demonstrated that such administration of the body in society was in fact still an open question and made a compelling case that this condition could elicit in 2005 as in 1829 a spiraling array of potential affects and responses. 
More broadly, this project steps beyond easy categories of realism and abstraction, exemplifying sound art as not some formalist abdication the social commitments of the “documentary turn” but caught up too in interrogating conflicted truths of memory, history, and politics. In an effort to better understand sound art’s specific capabilities, I bring together English-language discourse that understands it loosely as a branch of experimental music with German-language discourse that codifies more definitively its distinct spatial, sculptural, and volumetric qualities, while reorienting both to acknowledge sound’s tactile, corporeal aspects. Sound art thus emerges as a medium in which processes of sound, sight, space, and semantics collude both to function as and exceed documentary representation. Writing about the multisensory experience of Pandemonium, finally, is an opportunity thoroughly to reconsider the nature of aesthetic experience. There is no Pandemonium without urban planning, religion, penal philosophy, architecture, music, player pianos, robotics, psychoacoustics, atomic physics, and so on. Once we examine how this artwork actually functioned, of what histories and materials it was made, Pandemonium appears undeniably to conjugate sensory experience, to take sensory interdependence as its very subject.
Essential to my study is an imaginatively proprioceptive approach to Pandemonium that acknowledges its deliberate appeal to multiple senses and its investment in affect as a mode of meaning-making. [5] To borrow a phrase from art historian Caroline Jones: “embodied experience through the senses . . . is how we think.” [6] Indeed, attending to the meaningful interplay of sensory experience in Pandemonium proves key to understanding the work’s relationship to Eastern State Penitentiary, a place that worked to reshape modern society precisely by segmenting and regimenting the senses. [7] For this reason, I begin with an extended description of the artwork based on my own close listening to an artist-authorized recording of Pandemonium on headphones during visits to Eastern State Penitentiary. My description relies on installation photographs, interviews with the site’s public programs director Sean Kelley and independent curator Julie Courtney, and an invaluable account of the work by artist and project facilitator Richard Torchia[8] This intermodal approach to Pandemonium helps us to grasp the work as a full-bodied, somatic experience even while acknowledging that it is, for that very reason, ultimately irretrievable. 

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